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What the Gardener Says: A Review of Jonathan Buckley’s TELL

Jonathan Buckley




New Directions / March 2024 / 160 pp / $16.95


Reviewed by Laura Johnsrude / June 2024



In Jonathan Buckley’s twelfth novel, Tell, an unnamed, undescribed gardener speaks in first person for the entirety of the text, sitting for five sessions (chapters) with a filmmaker, or filmmakers, telling them about her employer, wealthy Scottish fifty-something businessman/heartbroken widower/father/art collector/estate owner Curtis Doyle, who has disappeared under unclear circumstances. The setting is the present, or near future, as Bitcoin is mentioned and the pandemic is cited, past tense. There’s a film project in the offing, it seems, although nothing concrete is ever stated. The reader is left to wonder if the interviewers plan a documentary—a gesture towards the truth—or if the scriptwriters will fictionalize the material.


I think the narrator is female, but I’m not sure. Once, an ex-husband is mentioned and, another time, a son is referenced; otherwise, no other personal details are provided. Although it’s never clearly said, it seems the gardener worked at Doyle’s Scottish palace for less than ten years. With a complete absence of physical description, the gardener’s characterization is conjured entirely from what she says—her language, metaphorical examples, insights, opinions, references, withholdings, recommendations, asides, and her descriptions of events and her relationships to the other characters.


The reader suspects from the start that something momentous has occurred to Doyle—maybe something catastrophic—to catch the attention of filmmakers, and the first paragraph sets it up with “Shall we start with the crash? Seems an obvious place.” Doyle survived that novel-opening car crash in Cambodia, but he was never the same person, afterwards, and the mystery—what happened to Doyle?—does provide a throughline of tension, but as I “listened” to the gardener’s story, it became clear that the reveal hardly mattered at all. The authorial maintenance of a single engaging voice relaying her version of “what happened” for 169 pages was captivating and reason enough to read Tell. The narrator relishes her stage and her wealth of backstory, controlling the pace and content of her revelations, even offering scenic and thematic suggestions to the filmmakers.


The format reads like a transcription; there are intermittent bracketed words, such as [Pause] and [Inaudible] and [Indistinct] to illustrate an auditory break in the narrative flow. If the filmmaker ever asked a question, it’s not on the page. Although the format might have made the reader feel like the interviewer, instead, the presentation simulates a theatrical monologue; my mind kept conjuring British actresses playing the part of “gardener”: Nicola Walker, Fiona Shaw, Brenda Blethyn. The character’s voice is so strong that I envisioned her settling back into her chair at the end of a vignette, or widening her eyes as she shares a provocative bit of news, or chortling as she describes Asil’s Turn, the chauffeur’s last-minute maneuver of his car when bringing a new visitor to the Scottish palace, presenting the magnificent view in a flourish.


Our impressions of everyone in the book are entirely filtered through the narrator’s point of view, including the experiences and conversations she attributes to others, like estate employees Rosa, Asil, Viv, Jen, Alicia, Jacqui, and Harry, who plays the comedic foil to the gardener’s opinions, throughout. Many Doyle family details are passed along to her by Lara, a young journalist who visits Curtis at his London office and at his Scottish home; she is working on a book-length manuscript about her subject, after having published a couple of articles about him.


The gardener clearly admired Lily, Doyle’s wife who died from cancer, as well as her employer, reporting that he treated the staff much better than other rich people did.


“He didn’t have to make a point about his status every minute of the day. We worked for him, but we weren’t his servants, if you know what I mean. Staff is what we were. Staff and servants are not the same thing.” 


The most compelling aspect of Buckley’s book is the undercurrent consideration of storytelling as “truth” or historical documentation, touching on the reliability of the narrator and the contributions of hearsay, myth, perspective, bias, inference, personality, speculation, motivation, social class, and the fallibility of memory. It’s especially satisfying to realize the narrator is aware of her memory-making power and is aware of the fraught nature of the whole project. Once, when she is searching for narrative clarity, she tells the filmmaker:


“But on the inside it can be darker than outside. And you’re too close to what you’re looking at. Like having your nose right up against a picture. You can’t really see it. I’m going in circles here. Let’s just accept that this is what Lara told us Curtis told her. We can only work with what we know. What we heard.”


In familiar conversational fashion, the stories are not conveyed in a strict chronology, as the narrator dips into tangential information or anecdotes. Similarly, characters’ names may appear, offhandedly, before being further fleshed out in a later section. The gardener’s prose is lively and frequently humorous. She enjoys sharing what this person said about that one—that Harry called Doyle’s son, Conrad, “outstandingly ordinary”; that Asil says Doyle’s Swiss-born art expert Karolina reminds Lara of Blade Runner: “The beautiful automaton who’s very nearly human.”


The novel alludes, many times, to the ease with which stories and meanings morph as forces bend and shape the narratives. There’s Karolina’s fascination with folk tales and the variations of a particular story from one country to another. There’s Curtis’s story about a childhood friend, Gerry, narrating an incident that happened when they lived in the same small town.


“With each retelling, every piece of the story had become more certain. Nothing Curtis could say would make the slightest difference to Gerry’s version of what had happened that night. The figure of the running man would always be there, running away. A shadowy figure, but as real as anything he could genuinely remember.”


There’s the gardener relaying what she heard from Asil about what Doyle said regarding the recollections of an elderly artist, Hilde:


“. . . Asil was wondering what to make of what he was hearing. Some of the scenes seemed far too precise. Recalling exactly who said what and who was standing where. Was she misremembering, maybe without meaning to? Or she could have been exaggerating, for her audience. She’d obviously liked having this rich man for an audience, Asil said.”


There’s Lara’s unpublished novel, a mashup of fiction blended with real-life details from Vienna-born Hilde. In this clever example, Lara’s novel’s main character is Hilda, with an “a,” such a vague distinction that the transcription text mixes up the spellings in the telling. And the gardener tells of Hilde being an artist’s muse, when she was a young woman, noting the irony in Hilde being forever depicted, uncredited, in paintings and sculptures:


“Real Hilde has gone, but the bronze Hilde will be there forever. Her double, in the nude, in her prime, for everyone to gawp at.”


You’ll have to read Tell to hear the story of Curtis Doyle—the gardener’s version of what happened to him, according to what she’s seen, heard, discussed, inferred, wondered, and misunderstood.


She is full-to-bursting with story, and she is not shy, talking and talking. Even so, she senses the inherent difficulty in the undertaking, explaining it to the filmmaker, and to us:


“. . . you remember someone doing something, years back, and you know it happened more or less as you recall, that it was this person who did this thing in this way, but can you describe them, like you can describe someone who was in front of you an hour ago? You can’t. . . . The mind’s eye isn’t an eye. It’s not that kind of picture you’re getting. Not really a picture at all. Even the person you saw an hour ago. You can’t see them like someone who’s there. The fade-out happens right away.”


Tell is beguiling. I enjoyed the gardener’s confident and clever voice—her performance. And I admired all the stylistic pathways toward the cold truth that we cannot be sure about what happened, really. Not ever.


Although the narrator is anonymous, British author Jonathan Buckley brings her to literary life, creating her voice with his prose. Buckley’s name is right there on the cover.



Laura Johnsrude’s creative nonfiction pieces have been published or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Bellevue Literary Review, River Teeth, Appalachian Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Intima, The Examined Life Journal, Swing, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, The Boom Project anthology, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of Spalding University’s Master of Arts in Writing program, Professional Writing track.

















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